Solving the Afterlife
In July, a philosopher named John Martin Fischer was awarded a five million dollar grant to oversee a philosophical, theological, and scientific study on the question of immortality. Fischer called the resulting venture, which will last for three years, the Immortality Project. The grant was given by a group called the John Templeton Foundation, and it breaks down like so: 2.5 million for empirical research, 1.5 million for philosophical and theological research, and 1 million for conferences and other expenses.
Fischer is highly respected in philosophical circles for his work in free will and morality. He does not believe in an afterlife, but he isn’t an asshole about it like some people. I spoke with him by phone from Germany, where he is a research fellow at the Centre for Advanced Study in Bioethics at the University of Münster. We discussed his project, some spectral hypotheticals, the potentialities associated with physical and non-physical immortality, and the meaning of Halloween.
VICE: One aim of the Immortality Project is to examine why and how people are disposed to believe in post-mortem survival. On that note, what would you say is the point of a holiday like Halloween that focuses on death?
John: Halloween, I think, is about the fear that we have of death, and that’s something that is going to be a central focus of the grant. Human beings have a fear of the unknown, a fear of death. It’s well known that a lot of what we do in our religious practices and in our lives is done in an effort to manage that fear, to manage that terror. Halloween is one of the ways we do that. We poke fun at ghosts and skeletons. We scare ourselves, but not so badly that we’re damaged. It’s kind of like we want to admit it and come to grips with it. The function of Halloween, I think, is to manage the terror of death.
You just mentioned ghosts. I’d like to pose a few thought experiments: Would ghosts, if they exist, have ethical obligations? That is to say, how would the quality of being disembodied affect ones ethics?
Well, you could first ask if in a disembodied form you would be able to affect people who still exist as psychical entities in the world. And if so, as a ghost or a disembodied form, I think you would have many of the same moral obligations as we do now. Whatever moral principals you accept would still apply. Interestingly, Plato famously asked what you would do if you had a ring that made you invisible, the Ring of Gyges. If you had that ring, you could steal things from the king, you could sleep with his wife, and no one would know. But Plato argues that you should still be just and moral, because in the long term that’s what’s going to pay for you—what’s going to be in your best interest, even if in the short term you could get away with some things. So here, this thought experiment is kind of like an extension of Plato’s Gyges Ring thought experiment, and I still think the same morals apply. Now, let’s say that as a ghost or disembodied form you wouldn’t have interactions with the world. Then you would have to ask, would you have a community of other disembodied persons? If you did, then ethics would still apply.
Let’s say a ghost is apprehended (busted) and tried for a fatal haunting, could one morally or logically sentence a ghost to “life” in prison?
[laughs] Well, that’s a hard one. One thing, let’s just say, uh… well, I don’t know exactly what to say about that.